The first batch of prospective jurors in the Aurora theater shooting case reported for jury duty this afternoon. They listened to introductory remarks about the case from Judge Carlos Samour and then filled out an eighteen-page questionnaire that will help the judge and attorneys choose who will serve on the jury.
Today's session means the trial of James Holmes, who is accused of murdering twelve people and injuring seventy more by opening fire in an Aurora movie theater in July 2012, is officially underway. Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
See also: James Holmes Case: Jury Selection Delayed for Fifth Time, Expected to Take Months, published October 28, 2014
Holmes appeared in court dressed in regular clothes instead of the maroon jailhouse garb he's worn to all previous hearings. He sat at a table with his attorneys while wearing baggy khaki pants, a blue-and-white striped dress shirt and a charcoal-colored suit jacket. He wore thin, reddish-framed glasses and his hair and beard were neat. In place of his usual plastic slip-on shoes, he wore black dress shoes. His wrists were not handcuffed, though his ankles appeared to be shackled to the floor with a discrete black cable. At the end of a short morning hearing in the case, a sheriff's deputy appeared to bend down and unshackle Holmes's ankles so he could be led out of the courtroom. When one of his five defense attorneys noticed that reporters were watching, she stood between Holmes and the press to block the view. Holmes did not speak in court but seemed to be paying attention while bouncing slightly in his chair.
A total of 9,000 prospective jurors have been summoned for the case. But Samour said the pool is already down to 7,000 due to excusals and undeliverable summonses.
Five hundred potential jurors will be called to the courthouse each day -- 250 in the morning and 250 in the afternoon -- to hear the judge's remarks, watch a video about jury service and fill out the questionnaire, which Samour said contains 77 questions. (The questionnaire has not been made public.) Then they'll be dismissed and told to wait to hear whether they'll be called back for individual questioning by the judge and attorneys. Samour said he'd like to individually question at least 3,000 people but added that he's flexible if the attorneys think differently. Eventually, the judge and attorneys will whittle the jury pool down to about 120 people who will sit for a two-day group questioning session. From that group, they'll choose 24 people -- twelve jurors and twelve alternates -- to serve on the jury for trial.
Jury selection is expected to take about four months. The trial is predicted to last four or five. Of the 250 potential jurors summoned to appear this afternoon, Samour said 188 responded that they were able to come and he hoped that between 130 and 150 would show up. No count of the number of people who did so was available.
That's partly because the media is not allowed in the courtroom with the prospective jurors. Instead, reporters and the public can watch jury selection via a video feed. This afternoon, about thirty reporters sat in padded folding chairs in a white-walled conference room and watched a video feed projected onto a white board. The video did not show the seats where the prospective jurors sat. Instead, the view was of the judge, the attorneys and Holmes.
In his introductory remarks to the prospective jurors, Samour listed the charges against Holmes but reminded them that he's presumed innocent. He also emphasized that the potential jurors must follow certain rules, including that they're not allowed to discuss the case with anyone, or read or write about it on social media. Samour repeated three times that "these rules are extremely important." He also implored jurors to answer the questionnaire truthfully.
"We need you to be completely honest," he said.
While the potential jurors filled out their questionnaires, Samour, the attorneys and Holmes met in a separate courtroom to discuss issues related to today's jury selection session. Six prospective jurors were released before the session even started, Samour said: four because they don't live in Arapahoe County and two who brought doctor's notes.
Prosecutors also mentioned to Samour that they noticed three potential jurors who appeared to be using their cell phones in the courtroom, which is against the rules, and one juror who "may have been sleeping." They didn't ask the judge to take any specific action, however.
At a morning hearing before jurors arrived, Samour went over ground rules for the trial. He said he expects the attorneys to act professionally, speak clearly and be reasonable when it comes to excusing potential jurors. Samour said he cares deeply about justice being served.
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"That's what this process is about: justice," he said.
Samour also cut short a discussion this morning of a motion filed by Holmes's defense attorneys regarding a video they said had been withheld from them until recently. The content of the video wasn't revealed in court, but it seemed to be related to Holmes's incarceration at the Arapahoe County jail, where he's being held prior to trial.
Holmes's defense attorneys called as a witness Undersheriff Louie Perea, who was formerly in charge of the jail. Attorney Rebecca Higgs asked him about surveillance video taken of Holmes in the jail before Samour cut off the hearing. Perea said the jail began taking video of Holmes on July 20, 2012, the day he was arrested, and that they preserved the video and provided it to prosecutors. He said they stopped preserving video in August but didn't tell Holmes's defense attorneys.
Samour stopped the discussion because he said he was concerned that prospective jurors might read about Perea's testimony before he had a chance to tell them to avoid media coverage of the case. Samour postponed the rest of the hearing until after all prospective jurors have filled out the questionnaire, which could take up to four weeks.